When Prime Minister Narendra Modi put Kerala and Somalia together in a comparison of infant mortality rates, Malayalis everywhere rose up to set him straight on social media. Using the hashtag #PoMoneModi, roughly translating to “Go Home Son”, they filled Twitter with everything from straightforward number comparisons to angry rants to mocking memes targeting the Prime Minister.
Clearly, the Prime Minister’s comparison was statistically inaccurate and exaggerated. But can the statistical inaccuracy of the statement alone explain the vociferousness of the social media reaction against him? This question arises because earlier comparisons between Kerala and Gujarat, also statistically inaccurate have not raised as much of a furore. And while the comparison may have been exaggerated, Kerala’s tribal activists have pointed out that the on-ground situation isn’t a very happy one.
The reason the comparison to Somalia stands out is because of its benchmark as other, as a political and social situation so unlike our own that comparison is completely egregious. It is interesting to note that numerous tweets called the comparison a “disgrace”. Even Chief Minister Oomen Chandy commented that Modi had insulted Kerala by his statement and demanded that he show some “political decency”.
In that sense, even as the Prime Minister is criticised for his statement, it is important to ask if a veiled racism is not playing in the background of the entire issue. For instance, one mode of mocking the comparison was with side by side visuals of Indian and presumably “African” men:
Humorous as such comparisons were in the context, one has to ask if they did not also rely on a generic notion of “Africans”.
Even some Twitter users recognised the possibility of one offence being magnified by many, offering warnings such as the following:
Please make sure you don't demean people of Somalia or make fun of Somalia while condemning the statement of our PM. #PoMoneModi— Aakash Chandran (@ChandranAakash) May 10, 2016
That Indians in various parts of the country have exhibited alarming racist attitudes towards people from various parts of the African continent is by now a well-documented fact. In that context, the original statement by Modi, insofar as it offered a pedestrian comparison with a generic “African” country in a bad situation, can be validly criticised for its racist overtones. But we should also ask, is the furore against the PM’s statement, the vigour with which #PoMoneModi proliferated on Twitter, one more instance of the veiled presence of this xenophobia?
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